Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

A New Rail Transit Plan for Indianapolis

Readers of this blog know that I am a skeptic on light rail in Indianapolis (and other similar sized cities). However, the Central Indiana Regional Transit Authority, a multi-county group studying transit options, is about to put forth a plan that gets closer to something I would be willing to endorse.

Their idea is to start with a commuter rail line in the northeast corridor, using diesel multiple unit (DMU) trainsets (basically self-powered cars, with each one having its own diesel-electric engines rather than relying on a locomotive car or overhead power lines). This would run at peak periods only. Union Station would be the downtown terminal. The line could be build in 2-4 years if funding is found. According to cwilson at skyscrapercity, Mayor Ballard is actually backing this now, seeing it as a potential economic development tool more so than a pure transportation project. He’s also pushing to include an airport line.

This scaled down plan has a lot going for it, at least if they do it right. Among them, it will cost less. If you start with commuter rail only, you can probably get away with a single track line with some sidings. Also, you don’t need to install expensive overhead power lines. And you’ve probably got more limited stations that don’t need barrier systems, high platform loading, etc. And it can be done faster. What’s more, it makes things far easier for running on regular rail lines. The FRA has extremely strict rules on rail safety in the US, far stricter than Europe. A passenger train on a line that also carries standard trains has to be able to withstand a collision with a freight train. This means it has to weight lots, etc. Most light rail cars don’t qualify. DMU cars, on the other hand, might be easier to get through.

This plan is also in line with my suggestions to start small and build up. I say start with bus to prove the business case at low cost and then convert to rail later. This is sort of doing that, by taking the Fishers express bus service and upgrading it to a commuter rail line. Later it could be converted to a light rail line with more frequent service, or double tracking. For example, the Metra Wisconsin Central service in Chicago started with basically five trains inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening at peak periods only on a single track line, and then expanded from there. A similar dynamic could work here.

Of course, there is no funding for this plan. So that is a huge barrier. That includes both capital and operating funds. There are also physical challenges. The Nickle Plate line to Fishers probably requires significant track and signal upgrades. The entire rail line south of 21st St. is gone, and rebuilding a connection to Union Station could be costly and problematic because of the busy CSX freight line through downtown. On the plus side, the line itself is already owned by local governments.

As for an airport line, there is also a rail line, already double tracked, that runs from downtown almost to the airport. This would require upgrades as well, freight carrier coordination, etc., but the line is there.

As noted in the Star article, the express bus service to various suburbs ends in a year or two when federal funding runs out. Any funding mechanism put in place to support light rail should absolutely preserve express bus routes, at least where the rail line doesn’t serve. This shows that transit has actual staying power, and builds the constituency for it over time. For example, keeping bus service to Greenwood keeps that city interested, and paves the way for potentially future rail expansion along the existing Louisville and Indiana line to the south. If the express bus service is allowed to lapse along with the federal grant, it would be hard for me to take transit seriously in Indianapolis.

The use of Union Station as a terminal probably makes some sense from an implementation perspective. However, this is not close to the major office employment centers downtown, which are mostly north of there. This highlights again one key advantage bus has over rail. I’m not sure where the Fishers express bus lets out, but there is no reason it couldn’t be, say, Meridian and Ohio. This puts it practically at the front door of most of the major office buildings downtown. Union Station is half a mile away (a ten minute walk). Also, an express bus is just that. Although the rail line to Fishers has a more direct route, a non-stop bus might actually be faster on a door to door basis since there are fewer, if any, intermediate stops.

From a purely transportation standpoint, it will still likely be difficult to cost-justify the rail system. But a less costly and more realistic system that can be in service quickly might be the type of investment that a city could justify making on some other basis. This makes it not much different from a stadium or convention center I guess.

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis

14 Responses to “A New Rail Transit Plan for Indianapolis”

  1. Pantograph Trolleypole says:

    I read your anti-light rail post and see where you are coming from, but some of the statements in your post today seem to ignore current and future situations as well as some conventional wisdom.

    First is this comment “I say start with bus to prove the business case at low cost and then convert to rail later.” This means you’ll be stuck with the bus forever. The bus will not improve anything and no bus in the United States has attracted more riders than it already did. There are ways to improve bus service but it will never change land use or address the issues.

    There is then the issue of the commuter rail line being a first line. When people get into downtown or where they are going, that’s the only place they are going. People who ride a train because its a train won’t transfer to a bus to get somewhere else in the city. So if you don’t have some sort of internal circulation, commuter rail doesn’t work well. Think of what happens in New York City or Chicago. People get off the commuter line and hop on a few stops subway.

    Third, why the hate for electricity? “Also, you don’t need to install expensive overhead power lines.” Transit agencies all over the country are strapped for service because their diesel fuel costs are killing them. Electricity can come from any source and if you don’t want to build a rail line, I would implore at least a look at Trolley Buses. Using internal combustion engines is what is causing transit agencies around the country such headaches just like those who drive their cars. Not only is it more efficient, it keeps particulates from getting spewed all over neighborhoods.

    A major reason I believe light rail is important on trunk transit lines is the ability to get more transit capacity for less operating cost. Sure there are other details like TOD and environment, but its also about affordability of cities. Your Portland example is quite funny because while the cost of housing is high, it’s not as high as anywhere else on the west coast. And the ability to take transit lowers transportation costs significantly. That matters to family budgets.

    I think there will be a sea change in the next few years. Electric transit, whether trolley bus or light rail is one of many answers to the problems we have in cities.

    BTW. Love the blog. Read every post.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Passenger rail only makes sense for fixed point to point high traffic areas.

    I would think the airport to a downtown multimodal hub near Lucas Oil, Conseco, and Convention Center/Hotel district would be a wise first phase.

    The concept of a rail, taxi, bus, rental car, limo hub near the current Union Station has been on the drawing table for years.

    The only problem is that the Indpls. airports second largest revenue source is parking tolls. Some sort of profit sharing would be required to make it happen.

  3. CorrND says:

    Two quick things:

    1. I’m guessing the Nickel Plate line was ripped up south of 21st in anticipation of the I69 connection that never happened, but can anyone confirm that?

    2. This is just from memory, but I’m pretty sure the Express Bus services run a loop when they get downtown, hitting 3 or 4 spots. At the very least, I know they specifically loop down to Lilly. Circulator service associated with commuter trains could simply mimic the Express Bus loop, perhaps with additional stops at IUPUI and Methodist.

  4. John M says:

    While you are correct about Union Station in relation to the major employment spots, it’s fairly close to the government center and also is reasonably close to Lilly and Anthem. Wherever the dropoff is, it seems to me that some sort of bus with times coordinated to the rail schedule would be useful.

    The Fishers and Carmel buses do dropoff at Penn and Ohio. I don’t know if there are any other spots, but I have seen the signs there.

  5. Mordant says:

    The Carmel bus makes several stops downtown. Here’s what I found on the City of Carmel website:

    The downtown bus stops consist of the following (look for the ICE Carmel Route bus stops signs):

    * Pennsylvania and Ohio
    * Pennsylvania and Washington
    * Pennsylvania and Henry
    * Delaware and McCarty
    * Illinois and Market
    * Illinois and New York

    I believe the Fishers buses also make similar stops once they get downtown.

    I have several colleagues who are regulars on the Fishers bus and their only complaint is that seats are sometimes unavailable and they have to wait for the next bus.

    When I lived in the DC area I took the Metro to work every day and loved it. I don’t know that it saved me much out-of-pocket expense, but it definitely saved me a lot of time, and that is certainly valuable. I chose to use that time reading, and I’ve never gotten as much reading done before or since.

    I’m in favor of starting to build a light rail system with integrated bus service that feeds the rail stations. I agree that it’s important to start small; I like the Fishers route and the airport route that’s been suggested. There’s no way to duplicate the massive investment or physical presence of the road network, but with time I think people would gradually adjust their choice of places to work and live so that they could take advantage of transit. With some decent planning and patience the areas around stations would be gradually transformed into highly valuable and desirable properties. If the transit system were able to capture some of that economic rent, either through outright ownership of some of the land near stations or some sort of incremental taxing scheme, it might go a long way towards financing the construction or at least the operating expenses of a rail system.

  6. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Mordant, I suggest you do some reading on something called the Land Value Tax. There’s a wikipedia article on it for starters. I am an advocate of this type of taxation, though I don’t support it in the pure form or claim it will bring utopia the way that partisans such as Henry George did.

  7. Kevin says:

    I agree completely with the first commenter.  Electicity has a greater chance for long-term sustainability than diesel fuel.

  8. thundermutt says:

    Ever the contrarian, let me throw the challenge flag here.

    Perhaps everyone does not realize that “diesel” trains are really “diesel-electric” where the diesel engine powers a generator, and electric motors provide the locomotion.

    Now the question becomes: where is the best place to generate the electricity to power the train (or car or bus…)?

    A proper analysis would compare btu inputs (from coal, natural gas, oil) per horsepower of motor output (or its metric equivalents) as well as the CO2 and other pollutants created per horsepower, as well as the water “used” (turned into vapor, another “greenhouse gas”) in the generation process. This would account for “line losses”, one of the inefficiencies associated with remote generation.

    This doesn’t even get into the cost, resource use, and energy required to make new electric lines and transformers vs. the diesel generator, or the environmental impact of either.

    “Green” is complicated, but it is measurable. It’s hard to make good judgements without taking the measurements.

  9. Anonymous says:

    As the cost of gsoline continues to rise, and the number of cars which access Indianapolis from the Northeast corridor increases, traffic is now a nightmare and the pollutants from the buses/cars continue to increase. The idea of utilizing diesel opearated trains on the old Nickel Plate line makes complete sense.

    In the first place, the argument that many of the street crossings would need upgrading is not accurate. Over the last ten years, most of the grade crossings have upgraded signal crossing devices such as flashing signals and gates. There have been several major track repairs made on this line to accommodate the Fairtrain. These upgrades were made with federal grants and taxpayer money.

    There is only a small percentage of track that has been removed, and could easily be laid back down, in that the right of way is still existent and is less than one mile of track that would have to be installed. It takes only 30 minutes for the Fairtrain to reach the fairgrounds from Fishers; that also includes a 30 mph. track speed which was set by the Indiana Transportation Museum. With only minor upgrades on trackage and crossings needed, that train speed could be increased to 45mph. That means that rail service could be implemented within the year, and these trains could transport a larger number of passengers, much more than buses. These trains would not be stopped at traffic lights, and congested traffic, and oculd conceivably arrive in Union Station within 45 minutes, after departure at Fishers Station.

    This rail line was preserved with the sole reason of a future rail service. Indianapolis is sorely behind when it comes to mass transportation. The time has now come to utilize this track because there is absolutely no reason to believe that there will ever be a decrease in the number of vehicles now driving into the downtown Indianapolis area, and the cost and preservation of fuel is now a reality. Any argument that signal crossings currently in place need upgrading, or that the current rail in place, is inadequate, simply is not true.Additionally, the number of traffic accidents on Allisonville Rd. and Binford Blvd. are staggering, which only causes further delays and a potential for serious bodily injuries to the motorists.

    That railroad sets abandoned except durig the Indiana State Fair. Since CSX has removed its access to the former Nickel Plate line, there is nothing running on this railroad, hence availability to this track goes unchallenged. The track is in place, minus one bridge and less than a mile of track that would need to be relaid, which could be done in a matter of weeks. The signals at the crossing, have, for the most part, all been upgraded to include flashers and gates. Factor in the cost of gasoline, air pollution, traffic congestion, and the increasing need to address the need to implement a viable mass transit system in this city, it is confusing why small interest groups have been able to prevent a concept that should have been completed by now. An average railroad passenger coach car carries between 60-80 passengers per car. Why delay this process any longer than has already been delayed much longer than it ever should have been. It is time for the citizens and politicians of Indianapolis to wake up and smell the coffee (that they could be drinking as the train takes them quicly, cheaply, and efficiently into the city for work, shopping etc. Running these trains during peak traffic flow times makes sense, but there should also be a minimal number of trains that would run throughout the day that would accomodate shoppers and those who leave the city early. Once in place, many motorists will wonder why politics and small interest groups have stalled this system for years. I know all of this because I used to supervise the rail operations on this line.

  10. Mordant says:

    Perhaps the key to finally getting rail transit in Indianapolis is to find a way to link it to professional sports. We could race trains, or subsidize highly paid professional passengers who compete to see who can visit all of the stations in the least amount of time. If we can disguise it as sports, people will likely be willing to tax themselves for it.

  11. Anonymous says:

    enegry costs and how urban areas deal with mass transit is now the biggest issues facing urban America today. I have been saying this for the last 10 years. Everyone has been saying to me…mass (rail esp.) won’t work in Indy. Well wake up! if we don’t start fixing the mass transit in this city…we are going to find ourselves not working at all. Any start is a good start in this city.

    I am skeptical of the people that are in charge of the vision and planning of mass (esp rail) in Indy and more importantly Central Indiana. I have been to a number of their meetings and walked away with a sense that they didn’t have a clue.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Indianapolis and suburbanites would be foolish not to grab on to a proposal that is this economical. The costs of track upgrades, equipment, bridges and facilities would be long term investments most likely and the reduction in stress on highway needs would more than offset those costs. I hope some money can be found in the Tollway sale funds to pay for this. I 69 would benefit from less congestion and needed upgrades. Where are the federal dollars? They will apparently pay for highways but not as willingly for other needs.

  13. Anonymous says:

    To everyone that thinks we need to start with electric because of the environment impact or because it is cheaper to generate electricity at a plan than on the train. The cost of a new electric train and the infrastructure to get it going would be so much more than what it would cost to get some used diesel engines. The only way progress is going to come is if you start out with smaller dollar amounts, prove that the riders will come, and then make the upgrades. That is what this plan is about. Even this modest plan would not get any interest by government officials if it were not for the success of the express bus. As for the person that says that buses have not solved anything, they already are. They may not move a large number of people but it shows that the people of Indianapolis are willing to use a transit system. I also like the idea of redeveloping the bus routes downtown to disperse the train riders. I would like to see a monthly pass that lets you ride the train and any bus.

  14. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 8:56, great comment. I agree, start cheap, prove the business case, then expand. The importance of launching the successful express bus service can’t be under-estimated.

    People will also be watching to see what happens to those buses. If they stop when the CMAQ grant runs out, it would be devastating. The area has to find a way to keep those buses running permanently – or until they are replaced by a rail line.

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